I have generally avoided my old habit of dissecting the pseudo-intellectual flim-flam from the HuffPo Religion section, but this one is a little different. It isn’t so much defending a religious position or concept with word salad from a blogger or religious leader. No, the article entitled God Is Not A Christian: Desmond Tutu And The Dalai Lama's Extraordinary Talk On God And Religion highlights a talk between Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Truthfully I thought the Bishop spoke in gobbledygook when expounding on god, but this isn’t surprising and I have no desire to highlight that. I’m sure others would focus on a different section (i.e. Bishop Desmond Tutu stating that “God is not a Christian”), but I am only concerned with the exchange discussed at the end of the article when the Dalai Lama said the following to Bishop Tutu:
“I think generally all religious traditions have good potential to improve human condition, however, some followers of religions, they are not very serious about one’s own teaching. They—out of selfishness, money, or power—use religion for personal gain. In some cases, because they completely isolated, so no idea about other traditions, value of other traditions. So that creates religious disharmony. But I think if you make balance, I think more weight to positive side than negative. Much, much more.”
“Yes, you are right, and you have to remember that religion is of itself neither good nor bad. Christianity has produced the Ku Klux Klan. Christianity has produced those who killed doctors that perform abortions. Religion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it. It is like a knife, a knife is good when you use it for cutting up bread for sandwiches. A knife is bad when you stick it in somebody’s gut. Religion is good when it produces a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King.” (ed note: emphasis added)
“But we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t say …because there are bad Muslims, therefore Islam is a bad religion. Because there are bad Buddhists, Buddhism is bad. Just look at the Buddhist dictators in Burma,”
“We’ve got to say, what does your faith make you do? Make you become? I would not have survived without the faith of knowing that this is God’s world and that God is in charge that evil is not going to prevail despite all appearance to the contrary. Yes, of course, sometimes, you want to whisper in God’s ear, ‘God, for goodness’ sake, we know that you are in charge, but why don’t you make this more obvious?’” (ed. note: emphasis added)
So both religious leaders suggest that “religion” doesn’t do bad things so much as it’s the person wielding religion. They make it sounds as if “religion” was a pure, monolithic template containing universal truth and it’s us humans screwing it up with our various faults. Funny, that sounds like one of the last stages of my liberal, pantheistic religious belief I held onto before I dropped it for making no sense and being useless.
Religion, as a cultural construct of humans, is a reflection of humanity and our spectrum of behaviors. Looking at religion anthropologically, supernatural and theistic claims are ancillary to religion as cultural phenomena. The beliefs and what people do with those beliefs, however, are not ancillary as they have real world consequences, both good and bad. In short: I am not arguing over the truth of supernatural and theistic claims in this instance. I am arguing that religion is a vehicle for human supernatural beliefs which are influenced by humans and in turn which influence humans. There is no auto-pilot for religion. It needs drivers and passengers.
The quote from Desmond Tutu “Religion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it,” struck me as fascinating for two reasons: 1) this statement by Tutu mirrors the old unofficial NRA adage “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and 2) I want to explore the idea that religion is morally neutral.
If we accept that religion is a cultural construct created by humans to express their supernatural beliefs and religion requires humans to “drive” then yes, you could say it is morally neutral and the NRA line could be commandeered to say “Religions don’t kill people. Religious people kill people.” This does not bode well for the concept that the religious have any moral superiority over non-believers or one another.
Regarding the neutrality of religion, I want to compare it to the discussion by many that religion and science are equals or on a level playing field. On a recent episode of The Left Hemispheres Podcast we discussed that science is nothing more than a tool for humans to use. Any technology developed by science to wage war or cause harm is not the fault of science as it is just method to discover things. Again, ‘Science doesn’t kill people. People use things they created via science to kill people.” This came up in the podcast due to the Richard Dawkins vs. Medhi Hasan interview on Al-Jazeera where Hasan wanted to deflect the horrors of religion by making the statement that science has overseen some of the worst killing in history.
There is, of course, a problem with this logic. Religion, while not a living entity itself, influences the agent (i.e. a person) using religion based on religious precepts and teachings. One could say science does as well, but to what extent are they equivalent? Not much. In religion anything can be believed via revelation and faith. In science, it is just facts and viable theories. Religion can influence a person to carry out horrific acts of violence in the name of god(s). Science isn’t influencing this in people. Someone using science can commit horrific acts of violence, but that will be the result of a motive not influenced by science. That is hardly the same.
For a religion to be viable a person needs to adhere to its precepts and teachings. This can also be said for science. The viability of science depends on the person using it to adhere to the scientific method. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on the non-overlapping Magisteria argument, but this does illustrate why they differ and are not equals as opposing views of the world or in usefulness. Religion, after all the ritual, scripture, mores, etc. are stripped away; is based on nothing more than revelation and faith. Neither of which are an acceptable basis to prove one religion is correct over another nor even provide a modicum of evidence for its truthfulness. There really is nothing to strip down to get at the heart of science. It is simply a method and a concise one at that. There is nothing mystical or interpretive about the process of science. Science cannot operate on faith. Those who make the claim that science requires faith either do not understand how antithetical faith is to the scientific method or are ideologues conflating terms in an attempt to draw parallels between science and religion. This is essentially an attempt to diminish science by bringing it to the religious level of uselessness to explain the universe. This is an ironic and comical tactic.
So, to bring this back to the point at hand; is religion morally neutral? No. Only in the most general sense can it be regarded as such. To say that religion is neutral is to strip it down to the bare bones concept and definition where there are no specifics and no precepts that must be adhered to. In reality, morally neutral religion doesn’t exist except in dictionaries. Once a religion begins to make claims and dictate actions it has a level of morality to it that cannot be considered neutral. Any specific religion with its scriptures, rituals, and beliefs influence the humans involved and the humans influence the religion. Religion is not static. It changes through time based on the ebb and flow of information and interaction with other cultures and other religions. This is obvious so I won’t provide examples. I am not making claims as to which religions are morally inferior or superior. That would take an epic study to define “morality” and parse out those details. To date, the religious aren’t fond of their religion being evaluated so closely.
Science is not like this. The collection of information known as “Science” is influenced by the knowledge gained, but the heart of science with all that knowledge if stripped away is the scientific method: easily conducted, repeatable, and neutral. It is simple. Just like religion it requires humans to conduct it, but that is where the similarities end. It doesn’t care what the results are. It will not influence a human to do something the human wouldn’t do on their own. There is nothing within the scientific method to suggest that a person ritually drink the blood of the Almighty Sagan or cut off the heads of those who oppose quantum tunneling theory. That is not to say some wacky group of humans wouldn’t do that, but it is not influenced by the basic scientific method. How could it?
When Desmond Tutu says “We’ve got to say, what does your faith make you do? I am in awe. We atheists have been saying this for millennia and it usually results in being called “strident” hopefully with our heads still intact. Yes, we have got to ask what faith makes people do and we have to ask what the basis for this faith is! There are real world consequences of religion that affect not just the believers of one religion, but everyone religious and irreligious. It is imperative that faith be questioned and their claims and assertions analyzed. Religion as a fluid cultural construct is ever changing and can influence people to do any manner of actions, morally inferior or superior. The basis of religion is the concept of revelation and this concept is upheld via faith. Faith has ability to influence people dramatically and this is based on what?
Nothing. Nothing at all.